The violent, separatist conflict in southeastern Ethiopia known as the Somali region or Ogaden has been referred by some as the next Darfur. The conflict has claimed thousands of lives over the last 15 years.
Ethiopia sealed off the region to media so there is little accurate information about the conflict, including claims of human rights abuses.
The region is rich in natural gas and is home to about 5 million predominantly Muslim people, mainly ethnic Somali nomadic tribes. The U.S. has said little about the conflict, as Ethiopia is its main regional ally in the increasingly unstable Horn of Africa region.
Worldfocus interviewed David H. Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. Amb. Shinn is currently an adjunct professor of international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His research interests include China-Africa relations, East Africa and the Horn, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, conflict situations, U.S. policy in Africa and the African brain drain.
Worldfocus: Ethiopia has labeled the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) as a terrorist organization. Is this an accurate description?
Amb. Shinn: While the ONLF has on occasion used tactics that qualify as terrorist — for example the kidnapping and/or killing of civilian Ethiopian government officials — it does not have any links of which I am aware with international terrorist organizations.
It receives external support from the government of Eritrea, which opposes the government of Ethiopia. It also receives financial assistance from Ogadenis in the Somali Diaspora. In 2007, 74 persons, including nine Chinese oil field personnel, were killed during an ONLF attack on a Chinese oil exploration work site in the Ogaden protected by Ethiopian troops.
The Chinese may have died in a crossfire between Ethiopian and ONLF forces. In the view of the U.S. government, ONLF activity so far does not meet the test of a terrorist organization. Should the ONLF escalate its tactics, however, this could change.
Worldfocus: The U.S. denied Ethiopia’s request to label the ONLF an international terrorist organization but also remained silent on claims that the Ogaden region is potentially the next Darfur. Ethiopia has shut down media access to the region, so accusations of human rights abuses are unconfirmed. Should the U.S. and other Western countries be speaking out?
Amb. Shinn: On those occasions when there are carefully documented human rights violations by the government of Ethiopia, the ONLF or any other organization, the U.S. and the rest of the world should speak out.
Virtually all of the information coming out of the Ogaden comes from either the Ethiopian government or the ONLF. Much of the information from both sides is unreliable. The problem, therefore, is making certain that accurate information exists before speaking out publicly. A good start would be a willingness by the Ethiopian government to allow independent, third party observers into the Ogaden to provide information about events there.
Worldfocus: Do the 4.5 million ethnic Somalis living in the region mostly support the ONLF? Do the majority of Ogadenis want to secede from Ethiopia?
Amb. Shinn: It is impossible to know with any certainty what Somalis in southeastern Ethiopia really want. Because of the difficult security situation, there are no public opinion polls in the area. I think it is reasonable to conclude that the vast majority of Somalis feel marginalized in their own country and that most of them have legitimate grievances against government policies. But do most of them support the ONLF? There is no conclusive evidence.
Not all of the Somalis living in Ethiopia’s Region Five or Somali Region are ethnic Ogaden Somalis. There are significant numbers of non-Ogaden Darod, Isaaq and Dir. Ogadeni from the Darod clan constitute the most numerous group of Somalis and occupy the largest geographical part of the region.
While there may be widespread support for the ONLF by the majority Ogadeni, many Somalis from other clans are concerned about Ogadeni domination. It is even less clear whether the Ogadeni who support the ONLF agree on a political outcome for the region.
Worldfocus: Do Ogadenis have irredentist tendencies, and what is their relationship with Somalia?
Amb. Shinn: In March 2009, there was a leadership split in the organization. The leader of the main faction of the ONLF, Mohamed Omar Osman, is on the record as saying that he wants to hold a referendum so that the Somalis in the region can determine if they wish to remain part of Ethiopia, become an independent country or join with Somalia. It is my understanding that the leadership of both factions of the ONLF prefers an independent Ogaden.
Worldfocus: With national elections slotted for next May, what is at stake for the ONLF and their representation or lack thereof in the Ethiopian government?
Amb. Shinn: Ethiopian national elections in May 2010 will probably change nothing in the Ogaden. Because of the difficult security situation, it is doubtful that elections can even take place in much of Somali Region.
The ONLF, although it participated in the government as a political organization from 1991 to 1994, has shown no interest in rejoining the political process. Even if it believed that the Ethiopian government would allow it to compete freely and fairly as a political party, which it does not believe to be the case, it does not appear that the ONLF is prepared to lay down its arms.
The head of the original ONLF faction, Mohamed Omar Osman, did state in October 2009 that he is prepared to engage in negotiations with the Ethiopian government, but only in the presence of a neutral third party and in a neutral location.
– Lisa Biagiotti
For more Worldfocus coverage of Ethiopia, visit our extended coverage page: Ethiopia Past and Present.